Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Astle, Thomas

ASTLE, THOMAS (1735–1803), antiquary and palaeographer, was born on 22 Dec. 1736 at Yoxall on the borders of Needwood Forest in Staffordshire, and was the son of Daniel Astle, keeper of the forest, a descendant of an old family of the county. He was in early youth articled to an attorney, but having more taste for antiquarian pursuits did not follow up his profession, and went to London, where he was employed to make an index to the catalogue of the Harleian MSS., printed in 1759, 2 vols, folio. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1763, and about the same time gained the notice of the Right Hon. George Grenville, then first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, who employed him in the arrangement of papers and other matters which required a knowledge of ancient handwriting, and nominated him, with Sir Joseph Ayloffe and Dr. Ducarel, as members of a commission to superintend the regulation of the public records at Westminster. On the death of the two colleagues, Mr. Topham was substituted, and he and Astle were removed under Pitt's administration. The same persons were appointed by royal commission in 1764 to superintend the methodising of the records of state and council preserved in the State Paper Office at Whitehall. In 1765 Astle was made receiver-general of sixpence in the pound on the civil list, and on 18 Dec. of the same year he married the only daughter and heiress of the Rev. Philip Morant, the historian of Essex. In 1766 he was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society, and in the same year he was consulted by a committee of the House of Lords on the subject of printing the ancient records of parliament. He suggested the employment of his father-in-law in this work, and succeeded him upon his death in 1770. The preparation of the text and notes of the edition of the 'Rotuli Parliamentorum ut et petitiones et placita in Parliamento, etc. [1278-1503],' London, 1767-77, 6 vols, folio, was undertaken by Morant and John Topham down to 2nd Henry VI, and after that period by Topham and Astle. Dr. John Strachey saw the volumes through the press. 'The Will of Henry VII' was reproduced by Astle in 1775 from the original in the chapter house at Westminster, with an interesting preface. After the death (1775) of Henry Rooke, chief clerk of the Record Office in the Tower, Astle was appointed to his place; and on the decease of Sir John Shelley, keeper of the records, in 1783, obtained the higher office. Astle was an efficient and zealous keeper, as is proved by his additions to the collections under his charge, and the indexes he caused to be made. A 'Catalogue of the MSS. in the Cottonian Library ... with an account of the damage sustained by fire in 1731 and a catalogue of the charters preserved' was published by Samuel Hooper in 1777, with a dedication 'To T. Astle, Esq., to whom I am indebted for the MSS. from which the following work is printed.' He had no literary connection with the 'Will of King Alfred' (1788) usually said to have been translated by him. Sir Herbert Croft was the editor of this work; the translation and most of the notes were furnished by the Rev. Owen Manning. In 1784 appeared Astle's chief work, 'The Origin and Progress of Writing,' a most important contribution to the English literature of palaeography. The oriental part is of course quite out of date now, but the chapters devoted to mediaeval handwriting are still of use to the student, as they are based upon the author's personal investigations. The numerous plates, which greatly enhance the value of the work, are well engraved by Pouncey. In 1800 a royal commission was appointed to carry out the recommendations of a select committee of the House of Commons which had inquired into the state of the records. Astle was consulted throughout this inquiry, and presented a report on the documents at the Tower. Astle was a member of sundry foreign academies and a trustee of the British Museum. He travelled on several occasions upon the continent with literary objects. Upon the death of Morant in 1770 he came into possession, through Mrs. Astle, of his father-in-law's library of books and manuscripts as well as of a considerable fortune. Astle had long been an industrious seeker after literary rarities, and eventually brought together the most remarkable private collection of manuscripts in the country. He carried on an extensive correspondence and freely placed his great knowledge and wonderful collection at the disposition of his friends. Dr. Percy acknowledges his help while investigating ballad literature. He was a conductor of 'The Antiquarian Repertory,' and contributed to the 'Archaeologia' and 'Vetusta Monumenta' of the Society of Antiquaries. In the latter appeared his valuable contribution on unpublished Scottish seals, in consequence of a committee of the society having been directed to investigate the subject. The editorship of the 'Taxatio Ecclesiastica' and the 'Calendarium Rotulorum Patentium' (Record Commission, 1802, 2 vols, folio), has been ascribed in error to Astle; John Caley edited the former work, and the same person and Samuel Ayscough the latter one. Astle died at his house at Battersea Rise, near London, on 1 Dec. 1803, of dropsy, in his sixty-ninth year. By his wife he had nine children, and he is now represented by the family of the second son, Philip, who took the name and arms of Hills, of Colne Park, Essex.

All his printed books, chiefly collected by Morant, were purchased from the executors in 1804, for the sum of 1,000l., by the founders of the Royal Institution, where they are now preserved. The collection is particularly rich in history and biography; many volumes in the latter class are enriched with the notes of their former owners. The famous collection of manuscripts was left by will to the Marquis of Buckingham, in token of the testator's regard for the Grenville family, upon payment of the nominal sum of 500l. Had the offer been declined, the British Museum was to enjoy the right of purchase at the same price. The offer was, however, accepted by the marquis, who caused a beautiful gothic room to be erected by Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Soane for their reception at Stowe, where they remained until they were transferred, with O'Conor's Irish codices and other manuscripts, to the sale rooms of Messrs. Sotheby in 1849. But the sale did not take place, as the entire collection was privately purchased by the late Earl of Ashburnham for 8,000l. In the autumn of 1879 the present holder of the title offered his late father's library and collection of manuscripts, the latter consisting of four distinct collections, known as the Stowe, the Barrois, the Libri and Appendix, to the British Museum for 160,000l. After a prolonged negotiation the nation became in 1883 the possessors of the Stowe division at the price of 45,000l.; the most valuable and interesting of the codices being those which had once belonged to Astle, and which are now at the British Museum. Among the chief treasures bequeathed to the Marquis of Buckingham may be mentioned a volume of Anglo-Saxon charters, unrivalled for number, beauty, and preservation; King Alfred's Psalter: the original wardrobe-book of Edward II; the register of Hyde Abbey near Winchester, and many other documents relating to the history of the most celebrated abbeys and monasteries of Great Britain; the original inventories of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe, plate, and jewels; the Hanoverian state papers; the original accompts of Wolsey and papers connected with the navy and ordnance of Henry VIII; the rich collections of Anstis, Garter king-at-arms; the correspondence of Lord Chancellor Macclesfield and Bishop Lyttelton, &c.; and papers from the libraries of Spelman, Twysden, Thoresby, Le Neve, Ducarel, &c. Besides many contributions to the 'Archaeologia' between 1763 and 1802, Astle published the following works:

  1. 'The Will of King Henry VII,' London, 1775, 4to.
  2. 'The Origin and Progress of Writing, as well Hieroglyphic as Elementary, illustrated by engravings taken from marbles, manuscripts, and charters, ancient and modern: also some account of the origin and progress of printing,' London, 1784, 4to, with 31 plates; the 'second edition, with additions,' London, 1803, 4to, 31 plates and portrait, contains 'Appendix on the Radical Letters of the Pelasgians' (published separately in 1775); a reprint by Messrs. Chatto & Windus appeared in 1876, with poor impressions of the plates.
  3. 'An Account of the Seals of the Kings, Royal Boroughs, and Magnates of Scotland,' London, 1792, folio, 5 plates; also published in 'Vetusta Monumenta,' 1796, iii.
[European Mag. 1802, pp. 243-5; Gent. Mag. 1803, pp. 1190-1, 1804, p. 84; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes (biography in vol. iii. p. 202) and Illustrations; Shaw's Staffordshire, vol. i.; Notes and Queries, 4th series, vol. iii.; Harris's Catalogue of the Library of Royal Institution, 1821; the same by B. Vincent, 1857; O'Conor's Bibliotheca MS. Stowensis, 1818; Smith's Catalogue of the Stowe Collection, 1849; Ashburnham MSS., copy of papers relating to purchase of Stowe Coll. (Parliamentary Return, 1883).]

H. R. T.